I have just joined our Religious Practices Committee at my temple and am amazed by two controversies. Some of our congregants want the service to be seventy-five minutes or less (or they get upset) and some don't want a sermon except once a month for adults and once a month at the family service (which the adults that don?t like sermons don't attend). Does anyone else have this problem, and how have you solved it? The timing issue has led to discussions of which prayers or songs can be deleted (or when we can do just the Hebrew or just the English) in order to save a few minutes. How much freedom does your rabbi have to extend the service for explaining prayers or customs, or for doing a sermon that is appropriate for timely issues, problems, or controversies?
Rick 360 families
We have a long tradition at [our congregation] of freedom of the pulpit, i.e., we would never presume to tell our clergy how long services should be, what they should cut or include, what type of sermon (e.g., long topical sermon, sermon inspired by the parashah, interactive d'var Torah) to give, what they should or should not talk about, or whether to skip the sermon entirely.
We occasionally make suggestions (and on the Ritual Committee I think there is a bias in favor of sermons, although no unanimity on the type of sermon preferred), but we trust our rabbis and cantor to provide an appropriate mix from week to week without falling into a prescribed pattern. They also have a good sense of the appropriate length for a service and are good about adjusting the length of the worship part of the service if the sermon or other program on Friday night is going to be particularly long.
Tom 1,200 families
My impression is that there is a widespread feeling (if not an informal consensus) that the length of the Friday night service has an impact on attendance. That is, young adults and teens who many congregations are trying to attract are turned off by a service that is more than sixty to seventy-five minutes. At our congregation I think that the rabbi rules the pulpit (not in a dictatorial fashion, but I don't see anyone telling our rabbis what to do during a service). An interesting twist on this discussion is an effort by our clergy to emphasize worship for its own sake. Some of our congregants view the service as the price one pays to hear the sermon. Sermon length is another issue. Most experienced speakers know that shorter is better, especially at night.
Richard 2,600 member families
Our regular Friday night services are at 8: 00 P.M. and are usually about ninety minutes in length. Our rabbi has freedom of the pulpit. He always has a sermon on whatever topic he chooses. Once a month we have family services that start at 7.30 P.M., last about sixty minutes and the rabbi tells a story.
Both of these services are very well attended--before we built our new synagogue people sometimes left because there were no seats available. The rabbi tries to keep the service at ninety minutes--if there is a special speaker, the rabbi does not give a sermon. We have been asked to include songs and prayers from time to time and always consider how that would affect service length.
Penny 555 Families
Our Erev Shabbat service typically runs seventy-five minutes, allowing for a twenty-minute sermon. Our congregants have come to expect a sermon every Friday night. On the rare occasions when our rabbi isn't available, the cantor or an invited guest speaker fills in.
As a relatively new VP of Religious Affairs I have heard congregants complain about the clergy introducing too many changes (e.g. new melodies for familiar songs, reading a prayer in Hebrew instead of English for the first time, etc.) and I have also heard complaints about too much sameness. We have been experimenting with things such as meditation, drum accompaniment, and storytelling at our once-a-month Kabbalat Shabbat at 6:30 P.M., with the hope that this will appeal to a different, younger crowd.
Overall, though, I feel strongly that the nature of the service is the clergy's domain, and that the rabbi and cantor should be allowed to make all decisions about liturgy and music. It isn't a democracy, and no one responds well to micro management.
As a rabbi, I am of two minds regarding the 'free' pulpit. One, we must worry about tzircha d'tziburah--the needs of the community; just because it is 'free' does not mean that the rabbi should use it irresponsibly. If, however, the board limits what the rabbi can say, what subject the rabbi can speak on, etc., the board is not allowing the rabbi to fulfill the most important rabbinic function: Speaking the tradition and teaching. Toeing the party line--even to people who pay his salary--is nothing more than a cruise-ship director. Rabbis need to be more, much more, than that.
While I agree that boring worship services are a real turn-off, focusing in on service length misses the point. It is like going to hear a concert or see a movie. If they are bad, we might walk out in a few minutes, but if they are good, we wish they would go on forever. Isn't this what Shabbat is all about? Why do we wish to rush Shabbat? Why would we want to shorten our time with the Divine Presence? It is precisely when you make worship services mechanical and overly scripted that people start looking at their watches.
Regarding sermons--some rabbis are gifted and some are not. Hopefully, those who are not as gifted in the area of public speaking recognize their short comings and will, do just that, keep it short!
While I am no maven on the history of "Freedom of the Pulpit," I have always understood it based on the explanation of why several Reform congregations are called "Free Synagogues." The term was used to let the public know that the rabbi was "free" to speak his mind (there were no women rabbis then) on any subject--evidently some congregations told their rabbis that certain subjects were taboo.
I agree that legislating service length misses the point. Worship must take however long it takes to include the "keva" (fixed) elements and a meaningful message and whatever else the clergy of the congregation deems important. The rabbis and I meet regularly to talk about worship services and try to plan out meaningful experiences with a mix of the new and the old, based on what we feel will be meaningful to the congregation as well as fulfilling to ourselves.
How will the congregants react? As was mentioned in a previous letter, some will like it and others won't. Last night, our youth group conducted services. Between the excellent readings, a well-thought out sermon, a conversion, the teaching of a new song, and our usual Mi Shebeirach and meditation, the service lasted ninety minutes. People walked out on the closing song.
Our greatest challenge is getting people to bring themselves (not just their bodies) into worship and seek the meaning that is there for the taking. Meaningful worship does not only include "low hanging fruit." Reaching for the higher moments and stretching to understand are important.
Janice 1300 families
Janice writes, with disappointment, that when a Friday eve service in her congregation ran twenty to thirty minutes over the usual time several people left at the closing song. Yet we need to remember that one of the first things Reform leaders did was to shorten an Orthodox service that had slowly, over many centuries, become longer and longer. The most transgressed Mitsvah in the Torah by Orthodoxy is the Mitsvah not to add or subtract from God's words (Deut 4:2). This could mean never change anything, but no one, except perhaps the Karaites, has taken it that way. I think it means do not add unless you subtract, and do not subtract unless you add, i.e., maintain a balance. Thus if you want to add some youth group materials, you should delete some other fixed material. If you do this nobody will walk out.